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Echinacea for colds . . . is it effective?

Echinacea for colds . . . is it effective? 2017-05-22T23:09:49+00:00

author: Dr. Kevin Curran

updated: 5-13-2017

Background on echinacea

Echinacea refers to a genus of purple flowering plants from the sunflower family. The common name for echinacea is ‘purple coneflower’ as this showy perennial grows up to 2 feet in height and produces bright, purple petals.

The plant is native to the Great Plains region of the United States. In the 17th century, as early American settlers arrived in the Great Plains, they observed the Native Americans (Dakota, Sioux, Pawnee) treating flu, influenza, sepsis and wounds with a concoction made from a purple, daisy-like flower. The settlers quickly learned the immune enhancing benefits of the purple coneflower and echinacea was shipped back to Europe.

This past century, scientists have published more than 800 journal publications on the chemistry, pharmacology, and clinical uses of echinacea. The majority of these reports explore the effectiveness of echinacea for colds and other infections.

In this article we review the science behind these health claims. At the end of the page, we discuss the factors involved when choosing an echinacea supplement.

echinacea for colds and immune systems

On the left, the purple coneflower shows off its bright petals. Cut and dried flowers, leaves and roots from Echinacea purpurea, on the right.

Echinacea for colds

The common cold is cited as the most frequent disease in Western civilization (Jawad, 2012). Everyone knows there is no cure for the common cold, but is it reasonable to take echinacea to help with cold symptoms?

The echinacea plant is commonly used as an immune system enhancer (Foster, 1991). In theory, an immune system enhancer helps your own immune system challenge and fight off an infection.

Many clinical trials have been conducted on the efficacy (success rate) of using echinacea for colds or the flu. The results of these trials are often conflicting. However, in 2007, a meta-analyses was published and the overall conclusion stated there is a modest benefit to the use of echinacea for colds (Shah, 2007).

A meta-analyses is a cumulative summary of multiple high-quality clinical trials. This report claims if you begin taking echinacea at the first instance of a cold symptom, you will likely shorten the time period that you are sick and there’s a reasonable chance you will also reduce the severity of the symptoms.

Echinacea decreased the odds of developing the common cold by 58% and, furthermore, echinacea use reduced the duration of a cold by 1-4 days. In conclusion, published evidence supports echinacea’s benefit in decreasing the incidence and duration of the common cold (Shah, 2007).

It should be noted that another meta-analyses was published in 2014 and the overall conclusions were less positive (Karsch-Völk, 2014). These authors reported only weak benefits for cold treatment and just small effects for cold prevention.

In our opinion, much of this scientific inconsistency is due to researchers using different echinacea species and different plant parts (stems, roots or flowers) in their experimental design. A large scale review of trials using similar echinacea plant material would likely yield more conclusive results.

Recent echinacea news

The echinacea plant continues to be an incredibly popular herbal supplement. The American Botanical Council (ABC) published their 2014 report of the top-selling medicinal plants in the United States. Echinacea sales reached more than 50 million dollars, this is a 79% increase over previous year sales. The only other medicinal herbs to sell more than echinacea were cranberry and horehound. We will update this section as soon as the 2015 ABC report is made public.

Recent clinical news

A recent clinical trial has been performed that is worth reporting (Rauš, 2015). A group of European scientists were curious whether echinacea was as effective as Tamiflu for treating influenza (commonly called ‘the flu’). Tamiflu (oseltamivir) is a leading remedy for treating/reducing flu symptoms. The group performed a parallel, double-blind study on 473 patients who were showing early flu-like symptoms. Some of the patients were treated with Tamiflu while another group received echinacea. After 5 days, the rate of recovery from illness was 50.2% in the echinacea group, while the recovery rate in the tamiflu group was 48.8%. The authors of this study conclude that echinacea is as effective as Tamiflu for the early treatment of influenza. The authors also observed less side effects with the echinacea treatment group (Rauš, 2015).

Based on this study, it appears echinacea is a more appealing option than Tamiflu.

Factors to consider when choosing an echinacea supplement

There is a lot of variation in the content of different echinacea supplements. When you choose an echinacea supplement you want to consider these factors:

  1. Which plant species are used? (E. purpureaE. pallida or E. augustifolia?)
  2. Which plant parts are included? (roots, stems, leaves, seeds, flowers?)

There are three popular species of echinacea: E. purpureaE. pallida and E. augustifolia. Different companies use different echinacea species and some use a combination of all three species. The strongest evidence in support of echinacea for colds, the flu or upper respiratory infections comes from clinical studies of the species E. purpurea (WebMD). Clinical studies of E. angustifolia and E. pallida are promising but, overall, show less convincing results. Therefore, we recommend looking for supplements that contain mostly E. purpurea.

Each part of the echinacea plant contains different biologically active compounds. Some supplements use only echinacea root, others use the aerial portion (stems, flowers, leaves). We recommend a supplement that includes both the root and aerial parts.

In summary, we recommend an echinacea supplement that focuses on a combination of the root and aerial parts from E. purpurea. 

Lastly, it should be noted that allergic reactions to echinacea are rare, however, if you are allergic to ragweed or other plants from the sunflower family, you should be extra cautious when using echinacea for colds.

Remember to bookmark this page! We will update this article as new clinical data is published on the health benefits of echinacea.

Gaia Herbs Echinacea Supreme Capsules

Gaia Echinacea Supreme is made from all parts (root, stems, leaves, flowers) of the species Echinacea purpurea and also includes the root from Echinacea augustifolia. Gaia grows their herbs on an organic farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. The farm is non-GMO and COG certified organic. Additionally, Gaia performs DNA bar-coding and phytochemical analyses for each bottle. These tests ensure that you are getting an active version of the correct plant in your supplement.

Gaia Herbs sells Echinacea Supreme in both capsule or liquid tincture. This is really a matter of preference. In our opinion, capsules are more convenient. They are easier to take and you know exactly how much of the plant material (in milligrams) you are consuming. The bottle lists the milligram amount per capsule.

NOW Foods Echinacea

NOW Foods is a large, respected company in the health industry. Elwood Richard founded the company in Illinois in 1968. The Richards family remains in control of the business today. NOW has a reputation for selling reliable supplements and taking considerable steps to be an environmentally responsible company.

They perform product testing on all supplements to ensure a potent form of plant arrives in each bottle. NOW foods sells an echinacea capsule which contains powder from the root of the species, Echinacea purpurea. The focus on echinacea root is appealing to some consumers, as there are some reports of the exclusive benefits of Echinacea purpurea root (Dalby-Brown, 2005; Gorski, 2004). Many visitors to our site have reported positive results after using NOW echinacea for colds.

Gaia Herbs Certified Organic Echinacea, Liquid Tincture

As mentioned, Gaia Herbs also offers Echinacea Supreme in liquid form. In general, the benefit to liquid tincture is it can offer a more potent extract than capsules. This liquid tincture is made by soaking echinacea plant material in alcohol. Alcohol is a solvent, so this step extracts active molecules from the plant material. You then drink small amounts of this alcohol solution.

A drawback to the liquid tinctures is that you can’t know the exact amount (mg.) of plant you’re consuming. Liquid tinctures report herb concentrations as a ratio. For example, a tincture labeled as a 1:1 ratio means that 8 pounds of herb was combined with 1 gallon of alcohol (1 gallon of alcohol weighs 8 pounds). The Gaia Echinacea Supreme liquid tincture is reported as a 1:1 ratio. The recommended daily volume to drink is listed on the bottle.

gaia herbs echinacea supreme

The author, Dr. Kevin Curran, in the Sonoran Desert near his hometown in San Diego, California.

Dr. Curran has a long history as a research biologist: working with genetics, molecular biology, neuroscience and ethnobotany. He is currently researching new ways to use plants to address human health issues.

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Citations

Dalby-Brown, Lea, et al. “Synergistic antioxidative effects of alkamides, caffeic acid derivatives, and polysaccharide fractions from Echinacea purpurea on in vitro oxidation of human low-density lipoproteins”.  Journal of agricultural and food chemistry 53.24 (2005): 9413-9423.

Foster S, “Echinacea Nature’s Immune Enhancer”, Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vt, USA, 1991.

Gorski, J. Christopher, et al. “The effect of echinacea (Echinacea purpurea root) on cytochrome P450 activity in vivo.” Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics 75.1 (2004): 89-100.

Jawad M., et al. “Safety and efficacy profile of Echinacea purpurea to prevent common cold episodes: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.”Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2012 (2012).

Karsch-Völk M, Barrett B, Kiefer D, Bauer R, Ardjomand-Woelkart K, Linde K. Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Collection. (2004) http://www.cochrane.org/CD000530/ARI_echinacea-for-preventing-and-treating-the-common-cold.

Rauš, Karel, et al. “Effect of an echinacea-based hot drink versus Oseltamivir in influenza treatment: A Randomized, double-blind, double-dummy, multicenter, noninferiority clinical trial.” Current Therapeutic Research 77 (2015): 66-72.

Shah SA, Sander S, White CM, Rinaldi M, Coleman CI. “Evaluation of echinacea for the prevention and treatment of the common cold: a meta-analysis”. Lancet Infect Dis. (7) (2007) 473-480.